Until Sunday teatime the most renowned single match in the history of Manchester City – at least, to the outside football world – was the 1956 FA Cup Final victory over Birmingham City which goalkeeper Bert Trautmann ended celebrating with a broken neck.
Shortly after that Wembley occasion, in Paris, Reims played Real Madrid in the first European Champions Cup Final. This was an occasion which has marked the Champagne club’s history: it was also a seminal moment, as it turned out, for not only French but European and world football. Reims are proud to have been there.
Like City, they have endured ups and downs over the succeeding 56 years but now they too are celebrating. Not winning the championship but, equally thrilling for their fans, promoted back to the top division of French football for the first time since they were last relegated 33 years ago.
A 2-0 win away to bottom club Amiens provided Reims with the mathematical certainty of promotion behind second division champions Bastia. Cedric Faure scored the first goal and Kamel Ghilas the second; they are 13-goal joint top scorers in the division. Party time – win, draw or lose – is assured after the home match against Lens on Friday.
Without Reims and their champagne football in the 1950s the game today might look very different – perhaps still dominated by national team competitions and national associations rather than by the all-powerful, super-rich likes of Manchester City.
Founded in 1931, Reims were the supreme club force in France just when Gabriel Hanot, editor of L’Equipe, proposed his European Champions Cup in 1955. They had been French champions three times in seven years, cup winners once and winners in 1953 of the Latin Cup, the immediate precursor of Hanot’s baby.
Oddly, Hanot was no great fan of Reims and Raymond Kopa, their mesmeric and creative little centre-forward. Reims played a football which was too “pragmatic and scientific” for Hanot’s taste. But they had cornered the market in domestic talent.
Reims were not only twice European champions’ runners-up twice in the competition’s first four years, they also provided the backbone of the French national team who finished third at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Kopa was the greatest French footballer before the eras of Michel Platini and then Zinedine Zidane while centre-forward Just Fontaine still holds the record, set in 1958, of 13 goals in one World Cup finals tournament.
Reims were last seen among the European elite in the Champions Cup in 1963 when they lost in the quarter-finals to Feyenoord. The 1-1 draw in the old Parc des Princes on an unlucky March 13 was Reims’ 24th and last appearance in Europe.
The French game went into financial free-fall. A string of clubs went bankrupt, Reims among them. The club reformed but were relegated twice in the 1960s and finally vanished from top division sight in 1979.
A four-division slide into part-time twilight was halted only in September 1996 when the publicist Christophe Chenut took over as president. His marketing talents persuaded a number of sponsors to come on board, he reassured the local council that the club could fill its modest new Auguste-Delaune stadium and bought back many of the old trophies which had been auctioned off years earlier.
His faith ultimately paid off. In 2002 Reims returned to the full-time world of the French second division. Now they are heading back among the domestic elite.
This past weekend was as important for Reims, in their own way, as it was for Manchester City.